On a moonlit Thursday night in Los Angeles, a group of local musicians huddle with baited breath inside an unassuming North Hollywood rehearsal studio as they await the first proper coming-together of two matriarchs of rock. Shirley Manson and Fiona Apple had only ever met briefly in passing backstage at a KROQ event in the late 90s. It's hard to believe that in an era that produced so many outrageously forthright and defiant female creatives—successful despite the casual sexism that dominated the music industry—two of the most lauded voices of the time weren't better acquainted. Then again, it was a different time. There was no Instagram or Twitter, no “like” function or retweet. You had to actually cross physical paths. But they were rarely, if ever, in the same room as one another. That all changed, however, with the third year of LA's Girlschool festival in February. Girlschool's all female-identifying lineup had a few secrets in the works, the biggest of which was that Apple, who rarely performs, would join Manson for the latter's Saturday night headlining set. On the night they performed a duet of the Lesley Gore classic “You Don't Own Me” with Girlschool's all-female choir. The song – selected by Manson – is an anthem for all who are puritanical in the wake of the Weinstein debacle to keep the conversation surrounding sexism and sexual misconduct alive and well. Anna Bulbrook (Girlschool's founder, former violinist of Airborne Toxic Event, and the woman responsible for bringing these two together) explains how it came about as a pipe-dream suggestion during a rehearsal at Manson's house.
“Shirley had the brilliant idea to perform “You Don’t Own Me,” and I had one of those moments of inspiration, or maybe fantasy: Wouldn’t it be wild if Shirley Manson and Fiona Apple sang that particular anthem together, at Girlschool, with an all-women band?” Bulbrook says. “Turns out Shirley has always adored Fiona but had never met her, which just seemed completely impossible. And my drummer, Amy Wood, also plays with Fiona… So I texted Amy to see if she thought Fiona might be up for singing with Shirley, and a few hours later we were all flipping out because Fiona was in.”
It's a testament to Girlschool that the collaboration happened. It's also a testament to Manson and Apple that they graced the audience with a much-needed moment of catharsis following the previous week’s Grammy Awards, where Recording Academy President Neil Portnow made an ill-received call for women in music to “step up” in order to be recognized as generously as their male counterparts. When show night at Girlschool came, Apple wore a t-shirt with a simple message across the chest: “Kneel, Portnow”. “It was fucking special. You had to be there,” Bulbrook says. We caught up with Manson at home about it all.
Noisey: Hi Shirley! Let's cast your mind to Girlschool and the rehearsal with Fiona. I can't believe you never crossed paths before. How is that even possible?
Shirley Manson: Well we actually had met once very briefly at a KROQ Christmas acoustic festival that Oasis, Radiohead, and we [Garbage] were playing at. I very briefly got introduced to Fiona just as we were heading onstage; a quick “Hi, how do you do?” It was so long ago and she was so painfully shy.
So how was meeting at rehearsal last month?
We had mad chemistry from the second we properly met. It was mad. You don't have that with everybody. There was electricity between us, and trust, and that is really unusual.
Do you think there was a kindred connection due to your shared experience coming up in the same era? I feel like it spoke to how isolating being a female in music in the 90s was that you hadn't had a rapport with each other…
Yeah we'd spent no time together. You know, I have always been a kindred spirit to all my female peers. It's something I've believed in strongly from day one. I've never seen them as my competition, always as my allies. I'm sure it's the way I was reared. I grew up in a family of all girls in a female-centric household. So I never felt threatened by other women and I always understood that sometimes they felt uncomfortable with another powerhouse in the room. The thing Fiona and I enjoyed was a genuine connection, and that's incredibly rare.
How did the whole shebang come about?
Anna introduced us via text. She cultivated this magic. When she first suggested Fiona I was in awe. I never think anyone is gonna want to do anything with me, hahaha. She suggested somebody who I really admire and love. I thought, 'That would be amazing' then I laughed. I genuinely didn't think it would be up her street to come and sing one song amid a chaotic three-day festival. It required singing on the fly, we didn't have much rehearsal, just one very brief hour. When she walked in the rehearsal room I couldn't actually believe it was happening. I'm a seasoned veteran at this point, I've been doing this for 35 years. To experience that visceral thrill is so powerful. You can still be unbuttoned by music and by voices and by truth. I literally could have swooned.
Both at rehearsal and onstage that night you looked like someone who reveres Fiona. I could tell that it meant something to you. Was she what you were expecting?
She was everything I hoped she would be. She was incredibly present and she understood what this whole thing was about. She didn't make it about her. She made it about the statement. The statement was strong, powerful and urgent. I could have been onstage with somebody who just wanted to make it all about them, be the queen in the room, be the star, and that would have been really tedious to me even if it was an artist that I loved and admired as much. But she got down into the dirt and that's what thrilled me.
How did you decide upon the Lesley Gore song? Obviously it strikes an extremely relevant cord with the #Metoo movement…
I may not be a genius but I know what I'm doing. Anna wanted me to do a cover. I knew immediately that this was the song for this event at these times. I was very adamant about that. Everybody's talking about the #Metoo movement, Times Up and this, that and the next thing right now but I've been talking about this since 1995! This is my language, this is the world I understand so I knew how powerful it would be to have an all-female band and all-female choir. I knew that would bring people to their knees. To add Fiona Apple into the mix, people lost it! People were crying in the audience. Afterwards, people were so emotional. They understood what was being said and how it was being said. The defiance, the fury but also the beauty of it, and the pride. For a long time, feminism has been shamed but the principles of feminism are beautiful. I think at that moment everybody saw what was at stake and how powerful change can be for everyone.
Her T-shirt was the icing on the cake.
It really was. It was like we'd planned it all but we hadn't. Nobody had spoken to Fiona about wearing that t-shirt. She texted me and Anna in the afternoon: “What are you wearing tonight? I'm thinking about wearing this…” and sent me a cute little picture of her wearing it. I said, “I fucking love it!” It was a genius spark from Fiona. That's what I mean. She understood what was at stake and she was willing to serve the moment and that is what makes her so incredible. But to me this is not about Fiona. This is about other artists, other women, female movements. As spectacular as it was to sing with Fiona. She's an incredible artist with a god-given voice and talent, one of a handful of greats from the last 30 years.
You're right. It's not about Fiona. It is about the larger picture.
It has to be about the larger picture. We have to all learn to serve. That's one of the problems that women face. They feel like when they get the spotlight, the attention and they have their moment, they're scared to spread the microphone around because they've fought so hard for that microphone. They're loathe to give it up. Women have to learn that being in a room with powerful women doesn't diminish their own power, it only augments it. We must all learn to welcome other amazing talents and bright lights, learn to sit alongside another women getting attention and not feel like it takes anything away from us. Because it doesn't. It magnifies our whole picture. That's a lesson women haven't properly ingested yet. It's still very hard for them to enjoy another alpha female's company.
That's a great note to wrap up with.
Thank you! Thank you for having the patience to sit and listen to me rant on. I appreciate you.
We appreciate you too, dude.
Eve Barlow is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter.